December Date for US Women's Open Brings New Challenges

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HOUSTON – The PGA Tour does not have a 72-hole batting event this week and several weekend games of college football, including the Michigan Marquee and the state of Ohio, have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus, putting the best female golfers in the world well positioned to fill the TV viewing void.

This weekend, the LPGA contested the United States Women's Open, the most lucrative major tournament, rescheduled six months from its original date by the pandemic, on a stage clear of some of the the usual obstacles that can overshadow women's golf in America. The spotlight it offers is tailor-made for Ariya Jutanugarn in many ways.

Jutanugarn, a former women's world No. 1 from Thailand, generates tremendous clubhead speed and can produce bunches of birds when rolling. But Jutanugarn, 25, tested positive for coronavirus before an L.P.G.A. event in Florida last month. In her last practice round this week, she didn't look like the same player who was crowned Open Champion in 2018 or even the same one who won an L.P.G.A. stop in Georgia at the end of October.

While playing the back nine of the Cypress Creek course in a group with her older sister, Moriya, 26, Jutanugarn consistently fell a few paces behind the others because of what she described as a sustained effect of the virus.

“Every time I play I run very slowly because my heart rate is so high. But I just have to deal with it.

A month after her diagnosis, she continues to struggle with fatigue and headaches. The barbecue for which Texas is famous, a staple in players' food, has largely lost her because she has not regained her sense of smell or taste.

"It's hard because I know my body isn't. 100 percent still," said Jutanugarn. "I just have to deal with it and do my best, and make sure I'm taking good care of my body . "

The poinsettia centerpieces on the # 1 and # 10 tee snack tables aren't fooling players. They are well aware of it. that Christmas isn't quite here yet.

"Soon in these two weeks, the past two weeks that I've been home, I thought," Okay, I'm going into a bubble, "said Lexi Thompson, the number 11 ranked player. "I'm not taking the chance to test positive during the two most important weeks of the year."

Yet it's 2020. So despite the best made bubbles, things are happening. On Wednesday, the United States Golf Association announced that Andrea Lee, who had tested negative for the coronavirus for the Volunteers of America Classic outside of Dallas and last week at the L.P.G.A. bubble, tested positive for the virus on arrival in Houston and had withdrawn from the Open.

Jutanugarn breathed a sigh of relief on Monday after passing her pre-event coronavirus test. Despite being in a featured group alongside two other former champions, Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu, Jutanugarn said her expectations were low.

In her return to the competition after quarantine she finished tied for 62nd place. Moriya, who tested positive at the same time as her sister, also made her competitive return to the Volunteers of America Classic, finishing in 16th.

“Last week when I ran 18 holes, I passed out because I was so tired,” said Ariya Jutanugarn.

Everything is not necessarily lost. Last month Dustin Johnson won the rescheduled Masters for a month after testing positive for the coronavirus in a pre-tournament test. Like Jutanugarn, he isolated for at least 10 days and returned for the final tune-up event.

On Masters Sunday, Jutanugarn said, she turned on the TV intending to watch Johnson & # 39; s last lap. But she had a fever and her head was pounding. "I fell asleep for four hours, I woke up and he was done," she said.

The challenge for Jutanugarn, and the rest of the Open's participants, is compounded as the tournament takes place on two courts for the first time this year. played to accommodate a full field of 156 women at blur d winter daylight.

Cypress Creek, where three of the four rounds will be contested, is long, with huge greens. The second course, Jackrabbit, where each contender will play one of the first two days, is a tighter layout, contouring around the smaller green complexes. Playing both well requires the versatility of a Formula 1 driver who could also be competitive in NASCAR.

Stacy Lewis, a two-time champion who is a member of Champions Club, knows both courses well. “I think you're saying in everyone's head, 'We're going to play Cypress three times, my focus will be that way more than the other,'” she said. “And then you'll have a bad day on Jackrabbit and play the next one. two disagree. I know people have asked me and I told them, & # 39; Watch Jackrabbit. & # 39;

Have the full focus of the players for the next two weeks. Both the U.S. Women’s Open and next week's finals in Florida offer a minimum $ 1 million winner check. The US Open will pay out $ 5.5 million and the Tour Championship purse will be the fifth highest in the women's game this year at $ 3 million, a gain that only makes this trajectory comparable to the mid-August to September period. during which two other majors – the Women & # 39; s British Open and the AIN Inspiration – were contested.

"To be honest it feels weird because I play around Christmas Day in December, so it's the first time," said Jin Young Ko, Women's World No. 1. "But the course is tough and then everyone looks nervous too, so it's fun. "

Nice? Danielle Kang, who has won twice since the tour reboot in July, will be joined this week by her boyfriend, Maverick McNealy, who plays on the PGA Tour. McNealy is one of many male players, including big-time winners Jason Day and Bryson DeChambeau, who have given their support to the L.P.G.A. this week by posting to social media with the hashtag #Womenworthwatching. DeChambeau's regular caddy, Tim Tucker, is moonlighting the bag for Lexi Thompson this week.

When asked about the best advice she has received from McNealy, Kang, a one-time big winner, said: Relax. It is the U.S. Open. Everyone is stressed. "

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